Hockey is a religion in Canada. People here go to ridiculous ends to watch the best game on earth–myself included. So as I headed over to the Bell Centre on Wednesday night to see Canada and Sweden face off in the semi-finals of the annual World Juniors tournament–contested between U20 national teams from around the world–I expected to be one of the tens of thousands of rambunctious fans filling up the stands. My expectations couldn’t have been further from reality. The arena was shockingly empty. Had this been a preliminary round game between Latvia and the Czech Republic, the attendance issues would have been understandable, but even Team Canada was unable to fill the seats.
Those who did show were treated to an exciting game with multiple lead changes ending in an upset 5-2 victory for the home side. Most of the meager crowd was checkered red and white, with blue and yellow polka dots marking pockets of Swedish fans. A giant Canadian flag was unfolded and passed around the rink, but struggled to stay afloat at some points where the crowd got thin.
It’s difficult to pin down the main cause for such a low turnout. One reason could be the lack of a superstar player on Team Canada. Two years ago, for example, the talented Connor McDavid’s presence helped set records in attendance. But even without an individual standout, the tournament is still filled with future NHL players with all but one member already drafted. A lack of a rivalry between Sweden and Canada, despite both being powerhouses at the international level, could also have impacted interest in the game. While ticket prices started at $35, significantly less than a Canadiens game, some still considered it to be overpriced for U20. The Habs always have crazy fans willing to pay anything to go watch them play, which doesn’t seem to be the case for Team Canada at the junior level. Tournament organizers had already felt the need to lower their prices in an attempt to increase attendance.
Yet there’s another possible explanation that seems too paradoxical to be true: Canadians may be growing tired of hockey. With Canada hosting the World Cup of Hockey last summer and the NHL season in full swing, Canadians may not be looking for more hockey. A World Junior Championship game on a cold January weeknight could have been one hockey game too many for even the more dedicated fans.
If one thing is for sure, the fans who showed up to the game truly cared about their teams. These were some of the most passionate fans I have ever seen and they were certainly more crazed than those in attendance at an average Canadiens game. There were no tourists or fair weather fans there just for the experience-these were die-hard supporters and rink-rats from around the world.
Thankfully with Canada reaching the tournament final to play the United States the following night, attendance was at its highest for a thrilling 5-4 shootout win by the United States in arguably the best game of the tournament. Watching Team Canada play at any level is exciting, but at a certain point one can simply have too much hockey in his or her life. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) may need to continue lowering its prices in order to convince people to attend World Juniors games or find new marketing strategies to hype non-rival play.